Will Cooper’s fascination with photography began with taking pictures underwater, particularly around the Poor Knights Islands, a hop, skip and boat trip away from his home near Ruatangata. When an accident seven years ago prevented him from further diving, he turned his attention to subjects on land—and found the “forgotten acres.”
Over a period of two-and-a-half years Cooper made some 100 dawn sorties to the local swamp, each time searching for those rare moments when life is transfixed and transfigured into something arresting.
“Carrying out this photography has forced me to start paying attention to the patterns in life, how everything is a part of a larger whole,” he says. “My photographs are just a series of glimpses, like fragments of the side of a Rubic’s Cube.
“Capturing these images has made me into something more than just a photographer. Perhaps an ‘ecology documenter,’ if there is such a thing, because in waiting for the photos you notice so much else happening that can’t be adequately captured on film: the sounds insects make, the fact that a bird is doing the same thing at the same time every day, that dragonflies are always more abundant in a particular corner of the paddock. These observations are every bit as important as the photos, and it’s ironic that I’ve really only come to realise how inadequate the photographs are as I’ve taken them.”
At the same time that Will Cooper was working in his swamp, Claudia Bell and John Lyall were visiting every town in New Zealand (at least once between 1991 and 1994), absorbing local colour and character for their forthcoming book on how small towns assert their identity.
Bell, a sociologist at Auckland University, has long been interested in the subject of how everyday New Zealand culture develops, how we build myths, and why particular items become icons that people recognise. She is working on two other books, one on national identity and the other dealing with community issues.
Looking back on the years of puttering along the back roads and living in a small tent, she doesn’t feel too much nostalgia. “We never knew what lay in wait down the next road, so it never became boring, but at the same time, devoting all our so-called spare time to the project [most of the field work was done in weekends and holidays] meant life was pretty hectic. Plus it was all self-financed. Despite the down sides, I was impressed by the initiative of many of the people we encountered. They had ideas and made them happen—created icons, at times almost singlehandedly, for little if any economic gain. Quite extraordinary.”
John Lyall is not your regular photographer. He describes himself as an installation artist—one who creates or sets out objects in a display, but sooner or later dismantles them, keeping photographs as the only record of their existence. For instance, he built a 21 x 8.5 x 4.5 m reconstruction of an old Hodges painting of Dusky Sound (“mainly out of colonial and post-colonial materials”) in the National Museum. After a few months on display, it was dismantled and the materials “recontextualised” into other works.
More transitory have been his installations of large furry fake big cats (one-metre-high leopards and the like) in alien environments, such as in the snow on Mt Ruapehu or underwater in the marine reserve at Leigh.
“You’ve no idea how hard it is trying to get clear photos underwater, keeping the animal still in the current, breathing through a snorkel, not wobbling the camera, freezing . ..” Lyall says the work signals the predatory nature of introduced European concepts, and the pervasiveness of human impact on our environment.
By comparison, taking pictures of concrete draft horses must have been a piece of cake!